Review – “The Eleventh Black Book of Horror” selected by Charles Black

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The latest volume from Mortbury Press shows exactly why this series is still going strong, full of polished tales that rejuvenate the kind of classic and lurid horror we love. I only need to glimpse that familiar red font on some new Paul Mudie artwork before starting to resemble the harpies preparing for dinner on the cover, and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Selected as ever by Charles Black, the eleventh book maintains the standard we’ve come to expect and brings sharp imagination to the tropes without losing any of the nasty fun.

BB11The curtain rises with “Two Five Seven” by Thana Niveau. A short piece that serves well as a taster, it’s narrated by a young girl visiting her grandfather’s rural cottage. She starts to hear the voice of another girl coming from inside his enormous old radio, and the menace swiftly mounts as her grandfather’s behaviour also takes a turn for the strange. Intriguing and effortless to read, it establishes the dark, dry tone that the series demands and treats us to an appropriately ghastly pay-off.

Next up, Edward Pearce takes us on a sinister visit to “East Wickenden”: a small, rural village with a secret history. We meet Paul, staying at the local pub and hoping to find out about heathen practices with the ultimate goal of getting his covetous hands on some ancient treasure. Although it doesn’t pack any huge surprises, it’s written with great style and brimming with unease.

One of the most raw experiences in this volume, and certainly the most memorable, is “Slaughtered Lamb” by Tom Johnstone. It’s related by a man named Robert in the form of an anecdote in a smoky gentleman’s club – a wraparound which is just as well painted as the main story itself – and concerns a travelling theatre company. Robert was a member as a teenager, and he tells of how they used to spice up a controversial political play about the Northern Irish bombings by using a real lamb carcass on stage. But things take a chilling turn when they arrive to perform in Belfast and Robert goes into a loyalist pub to try and source a carcass for the show. The tale is pitch perfect, and the grim political realism of that time makes it an unforgettably macabre – and ultimately terrifying – experience.

John Llewellyn Probert introduces us to Laura in “Forgive Us Not Our Trespasses”. A young woman discontented with life, she and her husband Alex embark on a retreat to the Somerset countryside. He desperately wants to conceive, but Laura doesn’t share his desire to start a family, and the supposedly romantic setting of the huge, isolated hotel doesn’t help. Her misery is soon compounded by the rain, an argument, and before long, nocturnal figures in the corridors and the discovery of a derelict church that bears the misquoted and baleful title of the piece. This is a well-crafted story, and very much driven by our protagonist. I particularly like how the palpable domestic situation grounds it so firmly in reality that when things get peculiar, we’re already strapped in for the ride and can’t escape before the bone-curdling showdown. One of John Llewellyn Probert’s less humorous and more viscerally disturbing works overall, it still has his trademark atmosphere, splendid prose and exuberance for all things gruesome.

“Without Facebook, it never would’ve happened.”

Thus begins the convincing and impeccably researched “Lord of the Sand” by Stephen Bacon: an immediately engaging account of an Iraq war veteran. He attends a Desert Storm reunion arranged through social media, and the intrigue thickens when we realise that the organiser – a nervous, restless chap nicknamed Beaky – has also invited Sergeant Hoggard. An alpha male who used to bully Beaky without mercy back in the day, we share our narrator’s unease when he turns up at the party, and also his suspicions. This author’s finest achievements are often of the quiet and haunting variety, but don’t let your guard down here. While it still has the Bacon mood and foreboding, this muscular piece of fiction wants to bite you in the face.

Kate Farrell takes us back in time for “Alma Mater”. We meet a group of four 12 year old girls: pupils at a strict boarding school run by nuns and full of the forbidden glee that comes so naturally to the young. They sneak off during breaks to regale each other with scary stories in the shadows of the pipe-threaded “Drying Room”, but it’s only a matter of time before malevolent forces come into play. I enjoyed the matter of fact style and realistic characters, and although the conclusion was a little straight forward, it succeeds as the old school chiller it set out to be and captures the delight of simple storytelling.

“Keeping The Romance Alive” by Stuart Young introduces us to Malcolm and Wendy. Having read 50 Shades of Grey, Wendy decides they need to spice up their sex lives, and Malcolm eventually confesses that his erotic fantasy would resemble a Hammer film including vampire costumes, sacrifice and special effects. Of course things don’t go as planned, but like a Final Destination film, it keeps us guessing about where death is lurking and what form it will take. Malcolm’s awkwardness and irritation at Wendy’s casual approach to his fantasy provides realism and humour, and it finishes with a punchline and a grisly picture for you to savour.

Turning the lights right down is “Teatime” by Anna Taborska, which bravely presents a negative protagonist in the form of Victor. He’s an intelligent, misogynistic, tea-drinking psychopath who soon progresses from tormenting rats in his university laboratory to killing women he meets in public. Razor keen and always one step ahead, the plot drags us helplessly along as Victor deftly stalks through life, charming his way into his future victim’s attentions. It nails the social niceties and manners we observe with strangers, even when they start being weird, and the tale is very well structured as a whole, especially regarding the use of perspective. Although it seemed to end a little quickly, the finale packs a wallop and left a sour taste in the mouth. As is the case with some of Anna Taborska’s past characters, Victor has decided to stay in my head, indifferent to whether I want him there or not.

“Lem” by David A. Riley is a deft, short piece about a couple of desperate ne’er-do-wells attempting an armed robbery on an elderly Jewish man. Although a fairly stock pay-off, it’s subtly monstrous in tone, and merges the unsavoury and satisfying elements of genre fiction to good effect.

Another shorter contribution, the excellent “Flies” by Tony Earnshaw could almost be the prologue of something much bigger. We meet Jim, a retired gentleman, walking his trusty dog Rufus down by a quiet cemetery and railway embankment. But he soon makes a grim discovery in the foliage, and the whole thing blossoms into a frenzied horror vignette as the title comes in to play. This is another that stayed with me, superb in evocation, and I loved the quiet, ominous teaser at the end.

Next up, David Williamson takes us to a good old-fashioned séance with “And The Dead Shall Speak”. Open-minded Tina is giving it a chance, unlike her sceptical boyfriend Craig, but the session ends when the medium – the pleasingly named Madam Orloff – scribbles something odd. It appears to be a furious message from a murder victim, and also seems genuine, so the scene is set for some detective work and naturally, another séance. This story only stalled for me when the angry spook apparently gave Tina an address and it took her forever to finally Google it, despite that being an immediately obvious thing to do. But apart from this, Tina is investable as an amateur paranormal sleuth and you’ll still get drawn in even if – like Craig – your opinion of psychic phenomenon is generally one of scorn. It concludes neatly with a riff in the vein of the Pan Books of Horror, and that couldn’t be more appropriate given the subject matter.

In “Every Picture Tells A Story” Marion Pitman tells the succinct tale of Wetherby: a professional artist who produces a cover for a zombie novel. To relieve his frustrations, he includes likenesses of people who’ve upset him as mutilated victims in the picture – his landlord, a council employee, his ex-wife – but then they start to die in similar ways to how his artwork depicted. Although a very familiar concept, it’s nicely set up, and this short piece leaves us guessing if the culprit is a crazed fan, some supernatural force or curse, or even Wetherby himself. Told in great voice, there’s some barbed lines to counter the gore, and at one point it made me laugh out loud.

I particularly savoured “The Weathervane” by Sam Dawson. We learn the plight of Thomas, a 15 year old staying at the ultra-traditional school of St. Abchurch, but only as a charity case rather than one of the gentry. Anxious to endear himself to his noble-blooded peers, he agrees to attempt a dangerous local dare that involves ascending the school’s chapel tower to spin the creepy, black weathervane at the peak. But it’s an escapade tainted with tragic history, and there’s also something the school’s headmaster knows. Not to mention the disabled gardener. This is a gripping journey of escalating doom, there are surprises that catch the reader as well as poor young Thomas, and the finale satisfies whilst leaving some mystery. This story also triumphs in both style and substance. It tackles the miserable cruelty of bullying and its consequences with powerful characterisation, but also injects plenty of exquisite spookiness that wouldn’t be out of place in an M.R. James book. I actually shivered in my chair during one climactic scene. Outstanding.

After that wander through the ivied quadrangles of the country’s elite, “Molli & Julli” by John Forth presents a very different journey, but one no less suffused with threat. In the swansong of the anthology, we meet Tom – a physically attractive but entitled and vain young man – setting off on a Friday night to drink heavily with his friends and meet girls. He meets two deeply unsettling women on the train into the city, and despite finding them ugly, he becomes strangely obsessed – and aroused – until their attentions twist the tone to manic horror. Although the ending wasn’t quite to my taste, I certainly didn’t see it coming, and I applaud the lingering attention to detail. The dizzying evocation of the heaving bars and noisy nightclubs as Tom’s world descends into helpless nightmare is immaculate, and I like it that it rounds off the book on a contemporary note.

The Eleventh Black Book of Horror is another colourful entry in an unflinching series that has carved its niche and knows exactly what we want. All the stories are thoughtfully written, character-driven, and whether they’re ice-cold, droll or have that traditional sting in the tail, they combine to form a distinct flavour of retro elegance and modern shocks. Sprinkle the whole thing with the darkest of humour and drape it in a stark cover by Paul Mudie, and you have the perfect tome for those who like to read with a wicked glint in their eye.

Review – “For Those Who Dream Monsters” by Anna Taborska

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Remember that name I said to myself the first time I was recovering from one of Anna Taborska’s  stories. It was a tale that drew blood, evoked with haunting imagery and almost unbearably poignant.

A few years later, Mortbury Press have done the only sensible thing to do, and put her name on the cover of a full collection. This was eagerly anticipated here, and as well as enjoying some excellent new tales, I also discovered that the familiar ones were just as good the second time round, sometimes even better.

TaborksaAfter a bang-on introduction by Reggie Oliver – who also provided a perfect black and white illustration for each of the stories – the book gets off to a strong start with “Schrödinger’s Human”. This concerns a professor with a horrendous penchant for cruelty and killing whose life changes when a scruffy black cat arrives on his doorstep. This tale really appealed to my car-crash-peering ghoul as it ratchets up the nastiness until the Pan-esque finale, bringing expert touches of black humour to counter the sourness of tone.

Next is “Little Pig” which begins with Adam, a nervous man waiting to meet his Polish girlfriend’s grandma Irena for the first time. The story then whisks us back to Irena’s childhood, fleeing wolves through the snow of wartorn Poland with her siblings and mother. As well as the pure adrenaline rush, this section packs an emotional punch when a hideous choice has to be made for the family to survive. The conclusion is elegant, functioning as a neat bookend, and the whole thing demands much investment for such a short piece. I also liked the juxtaposition and glimpse into the hidden layers of people’s lives, and perhaps there’s also a reflection on the relative triviality of our first-world troubles.

A lighter but violent revenge story, “Fish” concerns the exploits of a wrongly-murdered postman. Playing out like an episode of  Tales from the Crypt, it left me slightly wanting, but is well paced and cemented with dark humour.

We visit a poor village in Africa for “Buy A Goat For Christmas”. The locals receive a decommissioned tank from charity, intended to be dismantled and fashioned into farming tools by the local blacksmith, but then a visiting backpacker begins to display lycanthropic tendencies. The scene is set for quirky gruesomeness, and it sits well with the next tale, “Cut!”, which features a film director who’s a bit of an arse. He hires a bad actress on a whim, gets much more than he bargained for, and I smiled at the unashamed, old-school horror punchline.

“Arthur’s Cellar” is an interesting and memorable experience. It describes a man hunting an escaped creature his grandfather kept in the cellar of his remote forest house. Particularly evocative, there’s a strong pay-off, and I never quite managed to decide if was meant to be fun or disturbing. Which is no bad thing.

Cruelty and humanity abound in “The Apprentice”, a historical account of a violent village baker who hires a mute apprentice. It’s a slick read, and the finale – once again – is pleasingly dark.

Turning down the lights further is “The Girl in the Blue Coat”. A journey of discovery drizzled with the supernatural, we follow a travelling journalist wishing to interview Jewish people about their experiences of the holocaust. Horrible but elegiac and respectful, this is one of those rare pieces that manages to be both humble and humbling.

“A Tale of Two Sisters” is a Shakespeare-themed pair of stories, set in rural Poland. Part I is “Rusalka” in which a young man is bewitched by a village girl. It was tainted for me by a personal annoyance – elusive figures that invite pursuit – but the trope was well handled and I was still drawn into his obsession. I preferred Part II – “First Night” – in which friends Dan and Henry end up holidaying in a place where betrayal killed a broken-hearted village girl escaping the lust of a local Count. It really brings the folklore to life, and rouses just anger amid all the striking cinematic imagery.

A couple of lighter genre pieces follow. In “Halloween Lights”, we join a lost soul approaching a rural town on Halloween. It triumphs by forcing us to guess throughout what happened to our baffled protagonist. Is it a man who’s been in an accident? Perhaps it’s a confused werewolf or some other night creature? Following this is “The Coffin”, in which a man takes a shortcut through a cemetery and spies an unattended coffin that begins to cause him much distress. I found the concept a bit odd, and the ending was rather too familiar, but it’s impressively creepy for a story so short.

The author’s talent for evocation soars for “The Creaking”, involving a forest, a gentle herbalist named Alice, and some villagers with a violent paranoia regarding witchcraft. A well rounded piece, there’s brutality, kindness and a terrible shock. It’s nice to read a proper adult fairy tale sometimes, and this ticks all the boxes right down to the benevolent heroine and the destructive power of ignorance.

The 2nd in this trio of stories touching on gender egos and sexuality is “Dirty Dybbuk”. We meet Mitzi, a prudish Jewish student who succumbs to some kind of nympho-possession. It seemed a bit rough towards the end, and I was jarred slightly by some stylised narration, but it’s a wry and a self aware distraction from the heavier tales that loom either side of it.

Which brings me to the memorable “Underbelly” in which we find Anna, a woman dying of cancer. She encounters a demonic bat-like carnivore in the cellar of her building that promises to take away her pain, but for a terrible price. It’s so well executed that the somewhat familiar set-up didn’t spoil the intensity, and there’s just the right balance of bleakness and hope. The characters particularly shine, and moments of sweetness and humanity occur when we might’ve been hoping for brutal revenge: extra credit to the author for this deft emotional play.

“Tea With The Devil” is exactly that: an endearing discussion occurring in a rough estate on Halloween where it seems that the great horned one may be having a change of outlook. I feel unqualified to properly review “Elegy” – a poetic short about a magic lake on the site of a sunken inn – as it is a homage to Bruno Schulz, with whom I’m not familiar. I suspect nuances may therefore be lost, but I still enjoyed this colourful showcase of folklore and atmosphere.

Save the best ’till last the saying goes, and that’s certainly the case here. “Bagpuss” is the tale of a 12 year old girl, Emily (of course), who moves with her mum and beloved pet cat from the city to the countryside, bringing new fears and freedoms for all. This story wields such evocation and place that it’s like memory, aided by enormous emotional investment. The characters are perfectly realised, including the cat, and I even loved the dream sequences, which I often dislike in fiction. There’s so much going on here – themes of cause and effect, loneliness, innocence, the fragility of life – that it makes for compulsive reading and builds to an unforgettable finale. I still keep thinking about it and feeling sad, and might actually be slightly traumatised. But I’m going to read it again.

For Those Who Dream Monsters is a rewarding collection with its contrasts of compassion and cruelty, submission and hope. Anna Taborska is a superb storyteller, capable of extraordinary sense of place, characterisation, and rarely have I been floored with such poetic punches. Relationships are poignant, in so few words, and she can switch between the male and female voice without a stutter.

As Reggie Oliver said in his introduction, it would be exhausting to list the variations of location, theme and tone in this book. I agree, and suggest that you take the journey for yourself.

Recommended.

Review – “The Sixth Black Book of Horror” edited by Charles Black

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Edited as always by Charles Black, Volume Six is the latest in this series from Mortbury Press. As a new reader, I was led to believe that these anthologies were old-school in the tradition of the wonderful Pan Books of Horror. That is certainly true. There are twists and knowing winks. There are ancient churches, derelict houses, creepy old shops, sprawling countrysides, and several of these tales feature a funeral. But the tropes are just the garnish, and the stories themselves pack a real contemporary punch.

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There are 15 tales hustling for your attention beneath the frosty cleavage on the cover, and I’ll briefly mention a handful that through their brilliance, refuse to get out of my head.

The opener – “Six of the Best” by John Llewellyn Probert – is a grisly treat. It centres around a bunch of sly characters filming a Most Haunted style television documentary about ghosts that were murdered in especially horrific ways. The writing is bacon-slicer sharp, there’s satire and black humour by the truckload, and a devilish twist that made me grin – but thankfully not groan.

“Traffic Stream” by Simon Kurt Unsworth concerns the plight of a driver who gets lost on his way to a meeting, and begins to encounter sinister and progressively dangerous traffic. It’s a gripping tale, the ordeal expertly conveyed through a series of increasingly manic phonecalls received by the person who awaits him.

I particularly enjoyed “The Doom” by Paul Finch. This features a young priest whose rustic church reveals a secret: behind a crumbling wall lies an ancient piece of hellish, ecclesiastical art depicting the 7 deadly sins. The priest meets a curious visitor who seems fascinated with the work, before confessing the terrible reasons for his interest. Despite the classic horror setting, this is a contemporary story – delivering the best of both worlds – and offers thought-provoking themes regarding sin, moral choice and consequence. And it certainly has the most powerful and desperately helpless conclusion of all the stories in this book.

“Gnomes” by Mick Lewis is a blast. We follow a couple who take some magic mushrooms and decide on a trip to the cinema, an adventure soured by an escalating paranoia towards garden gnomes. A hallucinogenic experience is difficult to write without sounding fake, or simply boring the reader to tears, but the author dodges this pitfall, and “Gnomes” grabs the interest and doesn’t let go. It offers welcome moments of humour, but like a genuine bad trip, the advancing darkness will not be stopped. Eventually, like the protagonists, you will be questioning what’s real in this engaging mix of uneasy chuckles and malevolence.

For me, another peak is “Bagpuss” by Anna Taborska. Definitely the most sobering story on offer, we find Emily, a lonely, anxious girl who moves to the countryside with her single mom and beloved cat. The POVs of the protective girl and little Bagpuss himself are beautifully rendered, as is the weary heart of her neurotic mother. This is a distressing tale, with some incredibly poignant and fragile scenes. There is no humour to temper the tone, so I suppose it depends on the reader’s tolerance of mood as to whether they will derive enjoyment from it.

I’ll also offer a quick thumbs-up to Craig Herbertson for his “Spanish Suite.” Involving a confectionary salesman, a Spanish village funeral and a corpse, the sick finale made me guffaw on public transport and startle the lady in the next seat.

There are certainly no undeserving stories – all are written to a professional standard – but there are times when the quality dips slightly. Although well told and ultimately harmless enough, Alex Langley’s “The Red Stone” – regarding a rural slab of rock that has been the scene of many an atrocity – seemed almost too old-school with its textbook twist. There’s a similar problem with “The Switch” by David Williamson, a thrilling tale of a prison escapee whose luck takes a turn for the worse. It’s enjoyable, but the mechanism is rather worn. This anthology also doesn’t quite end on the high that it deserved. The final story, “Keeping Your Mouth Shut”  by Mark Samuels, featuring a stuggling writer turned scream-queen stalker, seemed to lack a coherent focus. While entertained, I was gently confused.

But these complaints are minor. This is an unapologetic tome of horror – both spooky and lurid – with an unusually high level of writing. And while there is much to fondly compare with the Pan books of the 60s, 70s and 80s, that isn’t to cheapen what else has been achieved here. The 6th Black Book of Horror isn’t merely a derivative homage, it’s a fresh, colourful anthology for the cliche-wary audience of now.

Recommended.